The Lady in The Catbird Seat
The moment you step off the elevator at The Catbird Seat, an audacious culinary venture that opened in Nashville last fall, an extraordinary sensory adventure begins to unfold. You pass through a psychotropic wormhole of unsettling kinetic stripes into a space that becalms the eye. A spare palate of white, charcoal, and stainless steel serves as clean canvas for the artistry on center stage — inside the U-shaped bar, where chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson paint comestible masterpieces for an intimate audience of 32.
Working the room’s periphery, house manager and beverage artist Jane Lopes greets gastronomic adventurers, maps out their evening’s exotic travels, and pours her innovative drink pairings with each course. But what’s most striking about dinner at The Catbird Seat is that despite the room’s cool modern design and the wildly whimsical gastronomic creations — such as earthy, savory Oreos prepared from porcini mushrooms and parmesan cheese — the place feels comfortable. Welcoming. As if you were a guest at your coolest friend’s house for a pull-out-all-the-stops dinner party of a lifetime.
Somehow, The Catbird Seat team manages to feed you all this sumptuous, exquisitely prepared food and drink without coming off as stuffy or intimidating. Far from supercilious, the atmosphere is collegial, respectful, even playful. And each dish, whether it’s a lovely and familiar Renoir, a deconstructed modernist Picasso, or an inscrutable Pollack, is delicious and surprisingly approachable.
Lopes says that’s exactly what she, Habiger and Anderson are striving for at The Catbird Seat. A former University of Chicago literature student who managed a wine shop after graduation, Lopes bartended at famed cocktail bar The Violet Hour. She thinks about service like a bartender, whose customers are always right at an arm’s length, where it’s impossible to ignore their happiness or displeasure. And her engaging explanations of her masterful beverage concoctions — offered seamlessly as she glides around the room — go a long way towards ensuring the former.
I caught up with Lopes at her Sylvan Park home and asked her to share some thoughts on how to make adventurous eating fun and accessible, her love affair with food and wine, and how dinner can be an unforgettable experience, even at home, by yourself, on a Tuesday night.
The atmosphere at The Catbird Seat is very warm and inviting, even though the food is pretty fancy. How did you three pull that off?
It’s a very personal experience when you’re interacting with the chefs directly. I think immediately people are put at ease. It’s really fun to watch them during service. But the most important thing is that everyone really cares. If someone looks like they’re not having a good time, we figure out why and make it better.
That’s the attitude we all came in with. There’s no such thing at The Catbird Seat as “this isn’t my job.” If I need help clearing glasses, Eric and Josh will help me. No one is “too important.”
A lot of people are put off by “fine dining,” especially of the more experimental kind. What would you say to them?
I’ve been to certain high-end restaurants that are more experimental, like Alinea or Schwa in Chicago. I had sea urchin ice cream cones at Schwa. I was like, “I do not like that at all. That’s cool, and I’m glad that someone’s doing it, but God! I do not want to eat that.” And I think that Josh and Erik do things that are at a really high level, but they’re also just really tasty.
What we’re doing is, I think, the direction is that fine dining is going to move in. Hopefully, it won’t even be called “fine dining.” It’s food at a very high caliber, where every detail has been thought about. But it’s so the guest can just relax. And it’s something that’s engaging and interesting and delicious.
We want to empower people to say, “Wow! I just ate an oyster for the first time, and it was delicious! I want to taste more food. I want to experiment more.”
How did you become a food and wine lover?
I studied abroad in Italy. When you’d eat, there was a carafe on the table. Wine was as much a part of the meal as the food was. That culture has always been embedded with me.
And The Violet Hour was awesome. I learned a lot about cocktails and spirits, and I developed my palate a lot there. Every drink you make, you’re tasting, and you’re saying, “Is the acid right? Is the balance right? Is the sweetness right? Is the alcohol right?” And I think that kind of informed how I thought about wine, too.
Wine is as academic as you want it to be. You can read a million books, you can travel, there’s just an infinite amount of stuff to learn. It can be intimidating at times, but it’s also pretty exciting. One of my favorite things to do is have a bottle of New Zealand wine and sit down and study about New Zealand. Where’d this wine come from? What’s the weather like there? And so I’m reading about it, and learning about why the things that I’m tasting are there.
How do you choose wine and beverage pairings?
One of the only rules I do go by is that your pairing should never be less sweet than the food, because then it’ll come off very bitter and dry. If food has even a little bit of sweetness, you need a little sweetness or fruit to the wine.
For me, it’s about creating a beverage experience that engages people. People are thinking about the places the wines are from, thinking about the different glass shapes. It’s an aesthetic experience, too.
Having both the wine background as well as this bartending background has given me the idea to be like, “Hey! I like the flavor of this wine but I wish it were sparkling. Why don’t I just carbonate it?” If you’re willing to take a nice bourbon and make an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, why not take a decent wine and do something different with it?
Can you give me an example of one of the more out-of-the-box pairings?
When Josh initially told me about this dish, he said it was going to be cherry and pineapple and charred oak ice cream with vanilla cake. And I thought, “Cherry and pineapple — Tokai will be great with that.” Tokai is Hungarian dessert wine; it has great acid, and it’s really good with desserts. But I like to think about the whole dish. What elements are being left out? The charred oak ice cream and the vanilla cake. I thought, “Bourbon. What if we do a rinse on that glass to pick up those flavors in the dish?” And it worked out really well.
It’s something that people never thought of before, like “Really? You rinsed a wine with a bourbon?” It’s a pretty presentation, but most importantly, it really tastes good with the dish.
You were a serious student of literature. Do you ever think about a great restaurant experience being like reading a great book?
I absolutely do. Because when you see a Shakespeare play done well, it’s just enjoyable. Even with the difficulty of the language, not knowing any of the subtleties and the history, you really just enjoy the play, you get it. The best books are like that, where everything is very intentional, there’s probably a ton of allusions and metaphors and symbolism if you want to dissect every word. But if you also just want to read it, it’s a good story.
That’s how I feel a good dining experience should be. A chef at one of the top restaurants in the world can get the first plate and know how to deconstruct it. But you can also just be like, “I don’t really know what’s going on there, I don’t really understand its context in the food world, but that’s delicious.”
There’s a lot of research lately saying that spending money on experience makes people happier than buying things. And for you, a meal is the ultimate experience. Your thoughts?
The Catbird Seat — it’s not a cheap restaurant by any means. But how much are tickets to go see the Preds play? If you saw a show, and then you got a drink afterwards, it would probably be the same price.
I agree, I like food to be something that’s not just the excuse for getting out, but actually becomes the event. At The Catbird Seat, it’s not just a meal, it’s three hours of entertainment. And in that sense I think it’s a very good deal.
Anything can be a food experience. Even if it’s just getting Vietnamese takeout and sitting on the floor and having a bottle of wine. That’s an experience I cherish too, you know? Or if you’re cleaning your house on a Tuesday night, pour yourself a little wine! All of a sudden, cleaning the house is not so bad. Honestly, I feel like it’s about your attitude more than anything, that this is something special, this is something worth paying attention to.
To learn more about The Catbird Seat or make reservations, visit thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com.
“I was putting up my Christmas tree when I got the phone call,” says Teri Johnson-Hiett, referring to the moment she found out she had breast cancer. It was right around Thanksgiving in 2005, eight short months after losing her mother at age 51 to the same disease. Teri was only 29.
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